It's after 11 p.m. on a Friday night and I've just arrived at Tijuana's Mision 19 to meet with Damien Cave, a New York Times writer and former Iraq War correspondent, for a weekend food tour of Tijuana (his write-up was just published in Food and Wine). Cave and his wife are finishing up a phenomenal dinner of Baja cuisine; I join in to help polish off a bottle of wine, and we decide to call it a night. Over the next 48 hours we would hit iconic Tijuana street-food joints and contemporary dining spots all over the city at a gut-busting pace — 10 stops in all. As it has done with those who came before, Tijuana leaves Cave with a lasting impression of the depth of its cuisine, its stark contrasts and its stimulating urban setting.
In the past three years, Tijuana has become a food-media sensation, as television chefs Andrew Zimmern and Rick Bayless, along with The New York Times, The New Yorker and the New York Post, have come to Tijuana to cover the dining scene. The week after our prodigious eating tour of 10 restaurants in two days, Anthony Bourdain and his crew pulled into town to shoot his shows No Reservations and The Layover.
A reverse flow of border-jumping foodists now are desperate to get into Tijuana to try real carne asada for the first time in their lives; to sample sea urchin cocktails, smoked marlin and manta ray tacos from a street vendor; and to hit up Tijuana's upscale Zona Rio for grilled Kumamoto oysters topped with crumbled chicharrones, or sopes of abalone chorizo. I am their coyote, a human-smuggler for those seeking food opportunities abroad. My instructions are simple: no fanny packs or flip-flops, no Hawaiian shirts, and bring something nice to wear for going out at night.
On the surface, Tijuana is that den of iniquity celebrated in Manu Chao's party anthem "Welcome to Tijuana." It's Las Vegas with teeth. But if you make it past its notoriously seedy membrane, this border town has a street-food culture that ranks among the best in Mexico and some of the best fine dining in North America — and it's been this good for decades.
I first went to T.J. in the late 1980s — during my college years — for nights filled with Avenida Revolución bars and $2 beers. But it wouldn't be until I read Barbara Hansen's "A Surprising Taste of Tijuana" in the Los Angeles Times in 2002 that I knew there was something more. I had a copy of the article but damn if I didn't misplace it. Then, while visiting my grandmother in Stockton, I came across the same story running in the local paper, the Stockton Record. I jumped in my car and drove straight to Tijuana, where I first dined at the Mexican haute-cuisine standard, La Diferencia; smoked some Cuban cigars at the Villa del Tabaco; and made it down to chef Martin San Roman's Rincon San Roman — all Barbara Hansen picks. Back then the only people who crossed the border were cholos and San Diego college kids; all they ever ate were bacon-wrapped hot dogs.
At first I shared my discoveries with friends. They'd heard about Baja but were mostly confused when I suggested we hang out in Tijuana. "Tijuana? Really?" they'd say. "Is it safe? Is there anything good there?" I always had to convince them to give it a chance.
Tijuana has always been unsafe — though as unsafe as any big city. In my 20s, the bribes paid to bent cops were a constant annoyance, and things were tense with the drug war in early 2010. But today Tijuana is a model of order during the current crisis, and even the crooked cops seem to be mostly leaving tourists alone.
We dined at the various upscale restaurants in the Zona Rio frequented by the local yuppies. My comrades were always surprised by the wealth and style of the Tijuanenses. A friend from Boston couldn't get over it. "What do all these people do?" he asked.
After I began blogging in 2007, the foodist crowd started hitting me up about Tijuana. Food fans, bloggers and Chowhounders from L.A. and San Diego met me down there, which was always a gamble — being stuck in Tijuana with some nutty food geek. It used to be dinner, some cigars and then taking in Tijuana's nightlife; now it was food crawls. I'd take them to the red light district for chicken neck tacos and they would just flip. Streetwalkers, hustlers and gabachos borrachos (drunk Americans) were all visible from the inner sanctity of the taquería — it's a true multisensory experience. The progression is necessary, to see Tijuana from an iconic vendor in the loud, gritty Zona Norte all the way to the fine dining zone.
At one point I took a dining group of mostly middle-aged women from L.A. to tour Tijuana. These were the kind who might be attending a tea service or visiting a honey farm, yet here they were in Tijuana crowding around a vendor on Avenida Revolución for street churros. They couldn't believe how amazing the street food was, and many had never experienced Mexican fine dining. Then we ran into some trouble: There was practically a mutiny because I hadn't included a coffee stop before the long ride to the first eats of the day. To this day, one woman from that trip won't even look at me.
In 2009 I worked with the Tijuana Visitors and Convention Bureau to assemble and lead a media tour of the Tijuana culinary scene. Leading up to the trip, I received only one call asking about the drug war, and once again I said it wouldn't be an issue. When our group arrived and I took one look at them, I just laughed my ass off: If this group of cute, petite bloggers with their huge cameras could come to Tijuana and feel completely safe, anyone could.
After we checked into our hotels on the first night, I took everyone for an unscheduled stop for carne asada cooked over mesquite. I sat contently with arms crossed — just for a minute — and watched stocky taqueros mug for the cameras and young beaming faces full of tacos without a care in the world. We hurried off for a nightcap of Casta beers, passable Mexican snacks and a magnificent group of mariachis. It was an unforgettable weekend, when the Los Angeles food community fell in love with Tijuana.
Articles and blogs about the hidden Tijuana didn't go unnoticed; within a few months the Travel Channel wanted to hear more. Kentucky Fried Buches in Tijuana's red light district, the only chicken neck taco specialist in Mexico, which has been making them since 1963, set the stage for the Bizarre Foods Baja Mexico episode, inaugurating this viral media cycle.
These days I can't go to a food event without someone asking me, "When are we going to Tijuana?" But there is one more person who must go to Tijuana with me: Rachael Ray. Only when she comes to town will this have truly entered the mainstream. I want to hear Rachael Ray say, "I'm here in one of the gourmet capitals of Mexico: Tijuana!" I want to see chicken neck tacos on 30 Minute Meals. Hey, boneless, skinless chicken necks will do just fine.
Bill Esparza is based in North Hollywood and blogs about food at streetgourmetla.com.